Town Moderator comments on Town Meeting articles 20 and 21

The following was submitted by Town Moderator Dennis Berry

With the recent focus on school issues and town elections, one matter that is important for Wayland’s future has to date not gotten the attention it deserves.  That is the appointment of the Finance Committee. That appointment process will be the subject of two opposing articles at the upcoming Town Meeting.

Article 20, submitted by the Select Board, would establish a three-person Finance Committee Appointment Committee consisting of the Moderator, the Chair of the Select Board, and the Chair of the Finance Committee.

Article 21, which I submitted on behalf of myself and a number of people with whom I have been working, would have the same appointment structure except that the three-person committee would be the Moderator, Chair of the Select Board and a former member of the Finance Committee, appointed by the Moderator.

Obviously, there is only one essential difference between these two articles, who sits in the third seat on the appointment committee. That difference may seem small, but I assure you it is very important.

For several years, I and others have been advocating for the appointment of the Fin Com by an appointing committee as opposed to appointment by the Select Board, the current practice.  Our idea is intended to establish the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of our town government. This is not a unique idea as it comes directly out of the 2017 Collins Report, the report that the Select Board relied on to establish the office of Town Manager.

I am delighted to see that this concept has now been embraced by the Select Board. At the same time, I am disappointed that their proposed structure falls short of the full separation of powers that is the underlying purpose behind establishing an appointment committee.

At the town meeting both the Select Board and I, along with others will be discussing the differences between our two approaches in some detail. In this note I would like to give you my thoughts on why having the third person be a former member of the Finance Committee as opposed to the currently sitting Chair is a better idea.

First, the sitting Chair will have undue influence over the other two members. Would the Moderator and Chair of the Select Board be willing to override an express statement, or more likely a subtle suggestion, of the Fin Com Chair regarding reappointment of an incumbent or appointment of a new candidate. If you accept that, the Fin Com Chair then have then almost a proverbial black ball on new candidates or an incumbent up for reappointment. With the sitting Fin Com Chair present, you do not have a committee of three equals. The view of the sitting chair would likely drown out the voice of the legislative branch that is the Moderator.

Second, the sitting chair of the Fin Com cannot help but be biased towards reappointment of incumbents who have gone along with his/her philosophy or at least worked well with him/her as opposed to those with whom he/she may have disagreed. The sitting Chair could not help but look at new appointees with an edge towards those who he/she perceives will share the Chair’s point of view.

Third, in that same vein, is the sitting Chair ever going to support a disruptor. That is a candidate who will bring fresh and new ideas and approaches to the committee.

Fourth, this would be the only situation where the sitting chair of a board or committee has a direct voice (let alone a dominant voice) in who sits on that board or committee. Membership on boards or committees is determined in one of two ways, either: (i) the whole Select Board appoints other committees within the executive branch, for example the ZBA; or, (ii) by you the whole body of voters in the case of elected boards such as the School Committee or Board of Health. The sitting chair of a board does not have an overriding say in the make-up of his/her own Board.

Fifth, look at this from the perspective of the committee members themselves. They would be working with a Chair who will be the dominant voice on the appointment committee. Will they dare either disagree with the Chair or seek major initiatives not supported by the Chair, particularly as their term nears its end and they seek reappointment.

Sixth, the proposal of the Chair of the Fin Com, taking the third seat leads to at least two ambiguous situations, one of which is present today. We currently have co-chairs of the Fin Com, a good idea to share the workload. But who would take that third seat on the appointing committee? Would it be shared, would one have to step down as a co-chair, would they get to decide who takes the seat? We don’t know and there is no guidance. At the same time, if both the Chair and vice chair are up for reappointment, who then takes the seat, is one other member appointed, does the vice chair take the seat?  Again, we don’t know and there is no guidance.

On the other hand a former member of the Fin Com: (i) knows the committee’s purpose and work load; (ii) knows the committee’s procedures to get its job done; (iii) is not tied to personalities of incumbents or candidates; (iv) by being an appointee of the Moderator is more responsive to the legislative branch; and, (v)  brings an arms-length objective perspective to the committee a perspective which is not possible when involved in day to day workings.

For all these reasons as well as the discussion you will hear at Town Meeting, I urge you to support Article 21.


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